While the world stares recession in the face, a group of young artists and curators in a warehouse in Peckham, south London are hard at work looking on the bright side of life. On a chilly October afternoon, the timber store-turned-gallery on a run-down industrial estate is a hive of activity. Nails are being hammered into the concrete walls and enormous canvases heaved into place. One artist, Bobby Dowler, is perched on a stepladder with a mini-roller painting the top of his stainless steel and wood tower sunflower-yellow. Another, Robin Shepherd, in trucker cap and lumberjack shirt, is drilling into a block of chalk suspended, angel-like, above a polished concrete plinth for his sculpture Chalk Fall. A friend films the process on a video camera.
This is Optimism: The Art of Our Time, a new exhibition at the Hannah Barry Gallery. The works on show include a board with pencil drawings of a loaf of bread, over which have been stencilled the commands or options, "Support/Reject/Invest/Boycott", by Marcus Kleinfeld. What appear to be a businessman's black briefcase and sensible lace-up shoes on a plinth turn out, on closer inspection, to be carved meticulously from basalt and serpentinite and weigh some 50kg.
"It's incredible how timely it has become," says Matthew Stone, one of the show's curators. "There's a lot of talk at the moment about 'recession-proof art'. But every artist I've spoken to is weirdly quite excited about the credit crunch. People are making art because it means something to them. I've always said that true art and money can never touch one another. They might be dirty lovers – but they never kiss."
So, while Andreas Blank's heavy-as-lead shoes may appear to speak a doomish, anti-corporate message, his accompanying piece, on an adjacent plinth, is a light-as-air, folded City boy's shirt crafted out of translucent pink marble with pearly white alabaster buttons. Other works put a similarly positive spin on the world; Oliver Griffin's mounted collection of 42 discarded scratch cards, a colourful collage of unwarranted optimism and dashed hopes, is given the title National Lottery scratch cards, or the nihilism and waste of post-modern gambling produces such beautiful pieces of paper. Always a sunny side, clearly.
Many of the works look to the future. Michael Allen & Daniel Schwitzer have produced bold graphic posters – part Mark Titchner-esque calls to arms, part futuristic club night flyers for "Ghosts, Cyborgs, Gypsies, Pirates, Impersonators, Terrorists, Transexuals and Clowns". Henry Stringer (a 19-year-old St Martin's student) has produced two beautiful sculptural responses to the concept of eternity in an ever-burbling copper fountain and a propeller clock, while Christopher Green has mapped out a Diagram of a Moment.
"I've always been of an optimistic disposition generally," says Stone, a rather gothic-romantic figure, dressed all in black. "It's not happy-clappy or blind optimism, it's a challenge to irony and cynicism. It's not about passively hoping that things will get better. Optimism is intrinsic to art-making. There's an apathy in our generation that everything has been done before."
Determined to take action, Stone set up an artistic salon in a private members' club ("If people really want to come, they can find out where...") to nurture and provoke discussion about art and "the responsibility that comes with shaping the future". The theorising on optimism as a cultural force for good grew into this exhibition and its accompanying book of essays.
Stone's own piece in the show is entitled Everything is Possible. Suspended from the ceiling, the Cubist sculpture is covered in photographs of semi-naked, entwined bright young things whose eyes and arms reach up in a modern, hedonistic take on the ecstatic, upraised gaze of Renaissance portraiture. His first solo show last year presented similar party portraits of his friends from the artist's collective !Wowow!, also based in a Peckham warehouse, whose members include the fashion designer Gareth Pugh, whose parties are so legendarily wild that Lauren Bush once tried to gatecrash with her two CIA bodyguards in tow.
Hannah Barry's Gallery is the latest addition to this vibrant scene in Peckham, a cultural nexus thanks to its positioning between Goldsmith's and Camberwell colleges and already home to the Sassoon Gallery, underneath the arches of Peckham Rye railway station, and the South London Gallery. Barry opened her space in January and has already staged some 14 shows with her stable of about 25 emerging artists.
The gallery grew out of the Lyndhurst Way collective, a former squat in a derelict Georgian townhouse where Barry and friends exterminated the rats, pulled up the carpets and painted the walls to stage a year-long cycle of exhibitions, starting with 10 Rooms and a Sculpture Garden in 2006. When the council took over the building, Barry moved on, staging two exhibitions of sculpture on the rooftops of a Victorian school-house and on the 10th floor of a multi-storey car park.
She then became aware of a dilapidated, seven-acre industrial estate around George Bussey's grand Victorian cricket-bat factory, now home to little more than the odd garage and a smattering of artists' studios. Sending one of her team on a recce, the report came back: "It's full of rubbish and it smells of fish. You do not want to open a gallery here..." Barry ignored this, seeing potential in the skylights, high ceilings and unadorned walls. Next, she plans to open a library of art books and monographs for students (with a £1 joining fee) in the original factory building.
Inside the warehouse, preparations for the show continue. James Balmforth is wondering how to secure his miniature gold sculpture, Do Not Tighten, to its stone plinth, while Shaun McDowell's abstract canvas is being hauled into the gallery amid much fluster. "I don't use the word optimism much," says the artist, one anxious eye on his painting. "It's a little prescriptive, like Prozac or mugs that say 'Have a Nice Day!'. For me, optimism is more about possibilities, potential. It's about 16 young artists exhibiting in a warehouse in Peckham."
Optimism: the Art of Our Time, Hannah Barry Gallery, Warehouse 9i, 133 Copeland Road, London SE15 ( www.hannahbarry.com ), todayReuse content